Is Facebook Running Away With Real-Time?

The way people use Facebook has shifted significantly. What does Facebook as a real-time social media channel mean for the network and the larger social landscape?

Matthew Klein
March 6, 2015 - 5 min. read

The 87th academy awards unfolded not just on broadcast TV and at the Dolby Theater but also on social media, on Facebook in particular. ABC livestreamed backstage content from the festivities on their Facebook page. And Facebook created a “trending experience” for the Oscars, aggregating content from The Academy, ABC, celebrities and users’ friends at

Sunday’s Oscars show was a very social event on Facebook! Around the globe 21 million people had 58 million interactions related to the Oscars on Facebook.This animation shows how conversation about the Oscars played out in real time on Facebook during the ceremony. Displayed are the number of unique people per minute (PPM) talking about the Academy Awards and the nominees in the US, along with a map showing which states saw the most engagement during key moments. All times are Pacific.

Posted by Entertainment on Facebook on Monday, February 23, 2015

In other words, Facebook users could keep up with a live event as it happened on the network.

It wasn’t always like this. Remember when hashtags officially came to Facebook? It might seem like it was late last decade, but it actually happened in July 2013.

The news prompted a lot of talk at the time, much of which said that Facebook was looking to gain ground on Twitter as a real-time social media channel—one where people would immediately turn to find out about breaking news and to follow live events. At that point, this felt like a big shift for the network—Facebook just didn’t seem like it was built to follow stuff in real-time. It would have been difficult to imagine, for example, that Oreo’s much-imitated “dunk in the dark” Tweet during the 2013 Super Bowl would have gotten anything close to the same traction if it had gone out only on Facebook.

The hashtag may never have achieved full adoption on the network (except maybe by ironists). But did Facebook accomplish what they wanted to do anyway, in terms of making the network a hub for real-time content consumption?

A transition over time

Facebook also made major efforts to enhance the live experience a few weeks ago at the Super Bowl. They created a real-time portal for the game like they did for the Oscars, with highlights, posts from players, and ads.

Facebook said that 65 million people discussed the big game on the network, adding up to over 265 million total interactions, including likes, posts and comments. Twitter, on the other hand saw 28.4 million super bowl-related Tweets. With the difference in user numbers, metrics, and measurement (Facebook was counting all day; Twitter just from kickoff), it’s impossible to make a direct comparison. Still, it’s clear that Facebook’s real-time efforts are paying some dividends.

It’s not just the event-specific portals that are driving the changes in how people use Facebook. The network has made a lot of tweaks geared towards optimising for use in real time. Besides introducing trending topics in January 2014, the company also adjusted its algorithm in September of that year. Those changes aimed to quickly surface content that was getting a lot of engagement at a specific moment, making the network more real-time. Those changes seemed to have a much bigger impact on my newsfeed than any others.

A major goal for Facebook has certainly been to increase engagement. Users tend to stick around to see what happens to topics that they are following in real time. People stay glued to Twitter for hours when there’s breaking news; Facebook would surely like more users to be doing the same there.

Both companies are also vying for a bigger share of the significant second screen market. Previously seen as Twitter’s dominion, Facebook has been making significant inroads there recently. For starters, the company announced that they would be offering real-time ad targeting tools during this year’s Super Bowl, which allowed advertisers to reach people whose posts contained specific keywords.

Twitter making moves too

Recent news from Twitter will have a significant impact on how people use that network in real-time.

The company announced that they would be partnering with Google, giving them access to their firehose, which means that Tweets will be indexed by Google and appear in search results in real-time.

The experience on Twitter has always been strong for breaking news stories, and this will bring that information to a wider swath of web users, including people who aren’t Twitter users.

There are reports that the partnership is a step towards monetization of logged-off users, who will eventually be served ads when they access twitter, even when logged out.

Going slightly in the other direction, Twitter recently released features to show users content from when they were not logged in. While you were away, which rolled out at the end of January, shows users tweets from when they were away. It seems to be the first use from Twitter of an algorithm to surface tweets in user timelines, rather than a live feed.

Where’s all this heading?

It’s safe to say that social will continue to play a bigger and bigger part in how people experience live events and follow breaking news. Facebook recently mentioned that it has started talking to media companies about hosting content directly on-site. This could have major implications in how people use the network to consume live content. Twitter’s newly released native video tools were used by Neil Patrick Harris to promote the Oscars, and it’s easy to see them being used more widely for live events.

Both Facebook and Twitter ultimately are chasing an ideal, attempting to serve the most interesting content to their users. Facebook is constantly tweaking its algorithm in order to get closer to it. One of the main tasks for Twitter’s new VP of technology and analytics Yoky Matsuoka, will reportedly be to find new ways to serve relevant content to users.

As the two networks continue to evolve and occasionally be, say, inspired by each other, the way people use the networks will change. Facebook may become a little more real-time, and Twitter just a little bit less. Because of the nature of both networks—Twitter will always be fundamentally real-time, and part of Facebook’s role will always be to “catch up” with people—they’ll only go so far. Just how far, exactly, will be interesting to see..

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